The World Health Organization (WHO) has acknowledged mounting evidence that airborne transmission of COVID-19 is a possibility. Time reports that WHO officials said during a press conference on Tuesday, July 7 that airborne transmission could not be ruled out in closed, crowded or poorly ventilated spaces, but they will continue to research this as it is not definite.

This announcement comes after an open letter titled “It is Time to Address Airborne Transmission of COVID-19” was recently released by 239 scientists from over 30 countries the globe. The paper details evidence that the novel coronavirus can spread through the air, and that health organisations need to take this threat more seriously.

“We appeal to the medical community and to the relevant national and international bodies to recognize the potential for airborne spread of COVID-19. There is significant potential for inhalation exposure to viruses in microscopic respiratory droplets (microdroplets) at short to medium distances (up to several meters, or room scale), and we are advocating for the use of preventive measures to mitigate this route of airborne transmission,” reads the paper.

“Studies by the signatories and other scientists have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that viruses are released during exhalation, talking, and coughing in microdroplets small enough to remain aloft in air and pose a risk of exposure at distances beyond 1 to 2 m from an infected individual.”

This announcement could change requirements for indoor spaces. Scientists suggest that a number of practical measures be put in place, in addition to the current hand-washing and social distancing requirements. These include:

– Provide sufficient and effective ventilation (supply clean outdoor air, minimize recirculating air) particularly in public buildings, workplace environments, schools, hospitals, and aged care homes.

– Supplement general ventilation with airborne infection controls such as local exhaust, high efficiency air filtration, and germicidal ultraviolet lights.

– Avoid overcrowding, particularly in public transport and public buildings.

“We are concerned that the lack of recognition of the risk of airborne transmission of COVID-19 and the lack of clear recommendations on the control measures against the airborne virus will have significant consequences: people may think that they are fully protected by adhering to the current recommendations, but in fact, additional airborne interventions are needed for further reduction of infection risk,” the open letter concludes.

“This matter is of heightened significance now, when countries are re-opening following lockdowns – bringing people back to workplaces and students back to schools, colleges, and universities. We hope that our statement will raise awareness that airborne transmission of COVID-19 is a real risk and that control measures, as outlined above, must be added to the other precautions taken, to reduce the severity of the pandemic and save lives.”

According to the BBC, WHO asserts that this evidence is still preliminary, and needs more time to be analysed. However, their latest announcement is a turnaround for the organisation, who have up until now continued to assert that airborne transmission is not a threat. In March, they said they have not found any reported cases of airborne transmission, and it would only be possible under very specific circumstances.

“According to current evidence, COVID-19 virus is primarily transmitted between people through respiratory droplets and contact routes. In an analysis of 75,465 COVID-19 cases in China, airborne transmission was not reported,” they previously wrote.

“In the context of COVID-19, airborne transmission may be possible in specific circumstances and settings in which procedures or support treatments that generate aerosols are performed; i.e., endotracheal intubation, bronchoscopy, open suctioning, administration of nebulized treatment, manual ventilation before intubation, turning the patient to the prone position, disconnecting the patient from the ventilator, non-invasive positive-pressure ventilation, tracheostomy, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.”

WHO has received much criticism over their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. President Donal Trump has officially begun the process of withdrawing the United States from WHO,which will come into effect from July 2021. His reasoning was that the organisation has repeatedly supplied misinformation over the virus.  This move to withdraw is being highly criticised by the president of the United Nations Foundation Elizabeth Cousens, who called the decision “shortsighted, unnecessary, and unequivocally dangerous”.

Read the full open letter here: ciaa939

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